“THE EARTH is the mother of us all—plants, animals, and men. The phosphorus and calcium of the earth build our skeletons and nervous systems. Everything else our bodies need except air and sun comes from the earth.
Nature treats the earth kindly. Man treats her harshly. He overplows the cropland, overgrazes the pastureland, and overcuts the timberland. He destroys millions of acres completely. He pours fertility year after year into the cities, which in turn pour what they do not use down the sewers into the rivers and the ocean. The flood problem insofar as it is man-made is chiefly the result of overplowing, overgrazing, and overcutting of timber.
It is 2015, and still this message is unheard. According to the Soil Atlas (2015), the available arable land per person at the present time is less than 1/3rd the size of a football pitch. With the rate of growth of land usage and population growth, the United Nations Development Programme predicted that ecologically sustainable land will have reached its limit in just 5 years time. Of the arable land that is available, much is sterile and depends on oil-based chemical fertilisers to sustain its fertility.
Hence, the UN General Assembly declared 2015 as the International Year of Soils by recognising that soils are key to sustaining all life. They enable food production, water filtration and are capable of storing more carbon than trees. A handful of soil contains more life than the entire human population.
“We are part of the earth and it is part of us … What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.” (Chief Si’ahl, (Seattle) 1852).
Fertile soil is live soil. One cubic meter of soil contains more than 10,000,000,000,000 bacteria, 100,000,000.000 funghi, 100,000,000 algae, 1,000,000 nematodes, almost 100,000 mites, more than 50,000 springtails, about 40,000 millipedes and centipedes, and approximately 100 each of fly larvae, beetle larvae, spiders, lice and of course, earthworms (Soil Atlas). Use of the spade and plough exposes all this teeming life to the air, which has the effect of destroying soil organisms through drying and exposure to damaging ultraviolet rays. The resulting loss of organic manner means that water retention is reduced, causing compaction, surface run off and eventual erosion. Carbon and nitrogen are also released to the atmosphere adding to the problem of global warming.
Despite this, the advantages of digging are consistently, but erroneously promoted. For example, The Gardening Patch claims that digging is one of the most beneficial gardening jobs as it improves soil structure, reduces compaction and improves aeration. This may be true in the short-term, but in the longer term, a reversal of this process occurs, as described above. It is also suggested that soil quality can be improved by digging in organic matter. However, is digging really needed?
If it is, how does Nature create lush rainforests, grasslands and woodlands? In nature, soil consists of dead vegetation, for example, leaves. Below that is a decaying humus layer of organic material in various states of decomposition. The lower strata are soil and subsoil. When we introduce our own plants to the earth, they seek the conditions provided by nature. No dig methods replicate this process. Compost is layered over the existing soil layer, which in turn is covered with mulch, such as straw, dead leaves and wood chips. Digging these into the soil has the effect of disrupting the natural process of soil building, whereas Nature’s design facilitates and enhances succession.
What can I do to make a difference?
“Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel, and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it” (Vedas Sanskrit Scripture – 1500 BC)
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN recommends the following to protect the planet’s soil resources:
- Prevent and reverse soil degradation
- Practise sustainable soil management
- Prevent soil pollution
- Avoid sealing the soil
- Combat climate change
- Shrink your carbon footprint
- Preserve and increase vegetation cover
- Stop food waste
- Spread the word about the importance of soils
Sound daunting? A simple step is to add as much organic material to your garden as possible, stop using chemicals, and encourage ground cover plants wherever you have bare soil. And don’t forget to talk dirty, for as Roosevelt said, “The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself”.
“A few more moons, a few more winters, and not one of the descendants of the mighty hosts that once moved over this broad land or lived in happy homes, protected by the Great Spirit, will remain to mourn over the graves of a people once more powerful and hopeful than yours. But why should I mourn at the untimely fate of my people? Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see.” (Chief Si’ahl (Seattle), 1854)
Quotations not otherwise credited:
© Safar Fiertze (2015), including images.